December 1, 2020 Subject:
Well-behaved women don’t make history, as they say, and Helen Taft is no more one of the legendary First Ladies than her husband William was a legendary president, stuck in the shadows between Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
But she was the first one to write her memoirs, and although not a stylist, she makes a good chronicler of what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age, whose spell seems to linger yet for many of us. And in her own phrase, these were ‘full years’ indeed.
Both from Ohio, she and William were well-connected among the Northwestern ascendancy, not always trusted by the New England elite. He enjoyed a remarkably smooth career as a lawyer, turning down many political appointments until he was made civilian governor of the Philippines - a job he accepted partly to give Helen a chance to travel. This opened her eyes to American imperialism in all its equivocal shades, and she is anything but sentimental about the locals. To those at home who complained about being undercut by cheap Filipino labour, she said “We knew that Filipino labour was the most expensive in the world, because it took ten men to do one American’s work.” And they were startled to receive news of the assassination of President McKinley by telegram in just 45 minutes.
The easy-going Taft seems to have been elected president because he wasn’t particularly bothered whether he won or not. Second time round, however, he did feel cheated when Roosevelt walked out just before the election, making a second term impossible. At the same moment, he lost his running-mate James Sherman to kidney disease. (Helen had been particularly glad of the Shermans in social life.)
We get an abiding abiding impression of a long, happy marriage between two rather agreeable and well-adjusted people. Helen is sincerely supportive of him, often worried about him, for example concerned that his legal career is making him prematurely middle-aged, but touchingly happy to declare that he is a nimble dancer, despite his famous bulk.